Judge won't dismiss clergy sex abuse suit; Nov. 3 trial set

By Madeleine Baran

September 3, 2014

In a sharply worded ruling, a Ramsey County judge has rejected a request by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to dismiss a massive clergy sex abuse lawsuit.

Judge John Van de North ruled that a jury should decide whether the archdiocese created a public nuisance by keeping information on abusive priests secret and was negligent in its handling of Thomas Adamson, a former priest who has admitted to sexual contact with minors.

The decision paves the way for a trial to start Nov. 3. It will be the first time in the country that a public nuisance claim against a Catholic diocese will go to trial, victims' attorney Mike Finnegan said.

Van de North cited several abuse cases in a 17-page memorandum released Wednesday along with the order.

"The Court need look no further than Fathers Adamson and Curtis Wehmeyer as unfortunate examples of the horrendous consequences that can flow from intentional and misguided efforts to protect pedophile priests at the expense of minors," Van de North wrote.

Wehmeyer, a priest of the archdiocese, was sentenced to prison last year for sexually abusing two boys and possessing child pornography. An MPR News investigation found that church leaders knew of Wehmeyer's sexual interest in younger men and did not warn parishioners.

"Failing to disclose information about an accused priest is akin to, and conceivably more offensive and dangerous, than other acts that have been considered public nuisances," Van de North wrote, citing nuisance examples including keeping "worrisome dogs," "maintaining houses of prostitution" and swearing in public.

The lawsuit, brought by an unidentified man who says he was sexually abused by a priest in the 1970s, has led to the release of thousands of internal documents on abusive priests and forced the disclosure of the names of priests deemed "credibly accused" of child sexual abuse by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona.

Finnegan, who represents the man known as Doe 1, called the ruling "a very important decision" for his client and "all the survivors in our shared efforts to get truth and transparency and to make sure that all the secrets in this archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona about child sex abuse are made public."

Finnegan and his colleague Jeff Anderson, known as two of the leading attorneys in the country on clergy sex abuse, are considering filing similar public nuisance claims in other states, he said.

In Minnesota, Finnegan said, the trial will allow the public to learn more about how the archdiocese covered up abuse. "We believe that public disclosure of these long-held secrets is by far the best way for kids to be safe," he said.

Archdiocese lawyer Tom Wieser downplayed the significance of Van de North's ruling. "In many ways, this is essentially a confirmation of his pretty clear indications at our summary judgment hearing about what his inclination was," he said.

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